Top 4 PSAT Strategies Students Must Know

college prep high school test prep Jul 29, 2021

When you take the PSAT, it's essential to understand its structure so that you can answer questions correctly. Knowing the structure, what the test is really asking, and how to eliminate bad answer choices are the best PSAT strategies you can find!

The test is made by the College Board, a gigantic "non-profit" that brings in more than $1B (that is a B for billion)! So you will have your work cut out for you in order to do well. They will make it hard on you and you must pay attention, otherwise, you will fall for their traps!

Take the PSAT as a Practice Test

Your first step should be to take a practice PSAT and get scores for each section (free tests can be found online).

Do not think that just by taking test after test that you will magically improve. The high-scoring, college-bound students looking for an advantage know that they need some specific test prep and must understand the strategies and test-taking tips that will work for all three parts of the exam.

WHAT SHOULD I STUDY FOR THE PSAT?

On every PSAT, there is always one Reading section, one Writing and Language section, and two Math sections (one with a calculator and one without your calculator). The Reading and Writing sections combine to form your Verbal Score, and the two math sections combine to create your Math score (note, that the majority of the math sections are multiple-choice, but there are 8 Grid-in (non-multiple choice).

I suggest you take a practice test (you can find a free practice test at this link), look to see what you got correct, and focus mainly on your wrong answers.

You will want to work on practice problems similar to the problems you missed on the test. Always make certain to check your answers so that you truly see if you are improving.

Confident PSAT student

PSAT/NMSQT

The PSAT/NMSQT (National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test) is a challenging test, and each section requires different approaches to excel.

There are some specific strategies for each of these three parts of the test to help you improve. A little test prep and practice taking the PSAT will greatly improve your skills and prepare you to score higher. As a bonus for your PSAT prep efforts, you will be in a much stronger position when you take the SAT because the PSAT is based on the SAT!

So taking the PSAT is really the start of SAT prep for college-bound students.

BEST PSAT TEST PREP TIPS AND TRICKS

The PSAT is a very different test from any you've seen in school before (which is what often frustrates students).

Still, it shares one significant similarity: the ability to use test-taking strategies. On school tests, you probably spend more time on the more challenging questions than easier ones. Tougher questions are usually worth more points.

The way you approach a question is just as important as the answer you eventually select.

This is not the smart way to do the PSAT. On the PSAT, you should move around within a section if you come across tough questions, as they are worth the same number of points as less complex questions.

What matters is that you are bubbling in the correct answer choice, not how you arrive at it. 

PSAT STRATEGY #1: FIND EASY QUESTIONS

Although every student has different strengths and weaknesses, it is best to practice your faults, but on test day, avoid those weaknesses and attack the problems that are easier for you.

Every student should take each question using their style. Your goal on the PSAT should be to get as many problems correct as possible. Remember, to earn the highest score possible, you cannot work on any section other than the one your proctor tells you to do (same rules for the SAT).

It may seem weird to answer the problems out of order, but it will help you improve.

To do this correctly, follow these steps:

  1. Work through all the easy problems that you can do quickly. Skip hard and time-consuming questions until the end. Work through the passages in order or jump to whichever passage you feel most comfortable working on.
  2. Do questions that are difficult but take a long time.
  3. Work through the most challenging questions last. Remember, all questions are worth the same point value, so focus on what is the highest probability of getting the question right and don't worry as much about the problems you have very little chance of getting right. 

If you do not have the time to complete all the questions because you are running out of time, pick a single letter and bubble the answer sheet repeatedly with that letter.

This will save you time and will help ensure you really get 1 out of 4 questions correct.

PSAT STRATEGY #2: PROCESS OF ELIMINATION

Using the process of elimination is still an essential strategy, even though there is no penalty for wrong answers. If you can tell that one or more of the choices are clearly incorrect, eliminate those choices first to increase your chances of getting it right.

To eliminate wrong answer choices, make sure to:

  • Read each answer choice fully
  • Eliminate answer choices clearly incorrect (when in doubt, don't cross it out!).
  • Always guess because there is no longer a wrong answer penalty.

PSAT STRATEGY #3: GUESS AGGRESSIVELY

Each PSAT question has four answer choices, except for the Grid-In questions in the math section.

If you do not know how to answer a question, GUESS! You have a 25% chance of answering the question correctly. Even though you have a 75% chance of picking the wrong answer, it won't cost you any points. On the PSAT, you will get zero points on a question if you do not answer it.

It would help if you always guessed, even when you do not know what to do.

When you guess on a question, do the following:

  • eliminate choices that seem unlikely before guessing.
  • never leave a question blank on the PSAT. 
  • if you run out of time, pick your favorite column and work your way through the section.

Choosing your favorite column is a bit faster than random guessing. ***This is a repeat but too often students forget to bubble in for fear of losing points!

The test should be hard, but not impossible!

Free Bonus PSAT/SAT Tips to Prepare You for the Test

Math questions on the SAT have an order of difficulty that usually follows one-third of the questions will be easy, one-third will be medium difficulty, and one-third will be hard. The PSAT follows a similar structure, except there are just fewer hard questions.

The PSAT is more like 40% of the questions are easy, 40% are medium, and 20% are hard.

Frequently Asked Questions About the PSAT

The PSAT was started in the early 70s (if you didn't know, the '70s gave us bell-bottom pants, disco, and this test). Talk about a bad decade!

If the PSAT isn't important, why should I prepare for it? Can I even prep for it?

As mentioned above, the PSAT is an important part of your college preparation. You might not be prepared, but if you know what it is like and how it will be different from other tests, you will have a better chance. Familiarizing yourself with the different types of questions and practice tests will allow you to be fully prepared for the test.

Go to Engeniuslearning.com, and we can help you with all of your academic needs.

How similar is the PSAT to the SAT?

The PSAT is an important test for college-bound students. The PSAT and SAT are similar in many ways, but they're not identical. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT is shorter in both question count and time. Unlike the SAT, the PSAT does not include an essay. Second, the PSAT is comprised of only simple mathematics like arithmetic and geometry. Third, the PSAT is given at your high school and not a separate testing center.

The PSAT is one of the earliest measures of your academic skills, and, ideally, it's supposed to pave the way for success with the more difficult SAT.

However, remember that taking this test should only be a small part of your preparation for the next level test-taker exam.

On the PSAT, is one answer choice more common than another?

No. There is an equal distribution of all answer choices to ensure that students could not gain an advantage over the test.

Do colleges use my PSAT scores to make admissions decisions?

No. Your PSAT scores are sent to numerous organizations, not just the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. College admissions departments can request lists of high-scoring PSAT students to contact them about scholarships. A high score attracts attention from top-tier colleges. A low PSAT score won't have a significant impact on the admissions decision and isn't a deal killer for college, but should be a wake up call to start improving your reading, writing, and math skills!

How Do You Guess on the PSAT?

The test doesn't care if you know the answer or guessed it, it only cares if you marked the correct answer or not. A few years ago there was a wrong answer penalty, for wrong guesses and no penalty or benefit for a blank answer. This penalty has been removed; always answer all of the questions!

And, since the rules are the same, always answer all SAT questions as well!

Is it true that in order to earn a perfect score, you DO NOT need to answer all the questions correctly?

Many students have said that they missed some questions on the PSAT and got a perfect score (same for the SAT). The people who make the test use a technique called scaling. This allows you to miss a few more questions on an exam that is slightly harder and only miss a few questions on an easier exam. That way, you will consistently receive the same scores for any test you take. Avoid getting distracted by negative self-talk, and try to stay positive throughout the test.

Considering how few people get a perfect score, it would be better to focus on getting more questions correct and worry about the things you can control.

Are the PSAT and SATs like my regular tests in high school?

The PSAT has some of the same content as high school math, literature, and English classes. But it also presents concepts differently. On the PSAT, you need to solve problems quickly and with as few steps as possible. You do not need to show your work, and you will get the same number of points if you guessed the answer or knew the answer.

Working fast and aggressively guessing gets rewarded on the PSAT/SAT but is generally frowned upon on your tests in high school.

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